Drought means bummer summer for Bend surfers

August 26, 2021
Drought means bummer summer for Bend surfers

Surfers, river users in Bend feeling effects of drought as river level drops

On a recent evening around sunset, music blared from a speaker set up next to the standing wave in Bend’s Whitewater Park. Surfers in wetsuits hooted and hollered as they took turns riding the waves.

As the surfers enjoyed the fading light and camaraderie, there was something not quite the same about the wave they had been riding all summer. The flow of water that rushes over the submerged mechanism that creates the “wave” was noticeably lower compared to last week.

“The wave is pretty flat and the flows are down, so it’s just a different wave,” said Justin Scott, a Bend resident who has been surfing the standing wave for three years. “You start jamming up your fins in the gate. You’ll see guys breaking fins. When you fall you might hit the bottom of the river because it’s not very deep.”

Scott, who operates a small ice cream company in Bend called Addy Mac’s, said normally surfers can ride deeper water until October. But this is not a normal year. A historic drought is decimating water supplies in Central Oregon, with many of this area’s reservoirs already showing exposed bottoms. Most of Deschutes County is in a state of extreme or exceptional drought.

Last week dam managers slowed the flow of water escaping from Wickiup Reservoir, about 40 miles upstream from Bend. Less water coming down the Deschutes means smaller rapids and more exposed rocks in the river. While that happens every year, it has never happened in mid-August.

“It’s a bummer that it’s ending so early,” said Scott. He still plans to surf the smaller wave but will use a foam board that is less likely to break in the shallow water.

How much less water is coming out of Wickiup? On Aug. 18 the flow into the Deschutes below the dam was 1,000 cubic feet per second. By Sunday, it dropped to around 730 cfs. A similar drop occurred last year in mid-September.

Last week’s slow down is not the last of the year. Another one will occur in mid -to -late October, drawing flows out of Wickiup down to around 100 cfs.

Just upstream from the Whitewater Park, employees of Tumalo Creek are still busy renting out tubes and kayaks to tourists and locals. Summer vacation is still in full swing for most Oregonians, and Bend’s Whitewater Park is a popular destination.

Kelli Wittman, marketing and social media manager for Tumalo Creek, explains that not all river users will be affected by the lower water level.

“Tubing won’t be too greatly affected at this time. Neither is kayaking because there are some deeper areas of the river,” said Wittman. “But surfing will be affected because the water is more shallow, so people will have to be more cautious.”

Despite the deeper areas they can utilize, kayakers will still notice the change in the flow of the river.

“The river has dropped exponentially,” said Wittman. “Just in a few days, it’s an entirely different river.”

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